It’s Irish dance, to be sure, but this show is hardly a frisky jig on the shores of the River Shannon.
Spirit of the Dance director/producer David King warns staunch traditionalists: “People that like a narrow interpretation of traditional Irish dance won’t like Spirit of the Dance. … Our funky music turns it into a pop show.”
Gild the green with a flashy hybrid of jazz, tap and flamenco, plus a purely ’90s funk-rock score, and you have what inspired one critic to rave: “It’s Irish dance meets Broadway!”
Despite the slick trappings, and disregarding his own emphasis on the show as an entertainment blowout rather than a respectful homage to ancestry, King maintains that the centuries-old Irish style is still a prime stimulus behind the moves of the dancers.
“The [popularity] of the production is [due to] Irish dance,” he affirms. “It has been a traditional art form for hundreds of years that’s only recently come back in style because of [Irish dancer] Michael Flatley. … The jazz, flamenco and tap in Spirit of the Dance are [just] complements to the Irish dance.” He says this fact still holds true for 1998’s allegedly “improved” show, purported to be an even further departure from Celtic strains of yore.
So what keeps it Irish?
Try sass and synchronicity.
“The energy and precision of Irish dance is so passionate and exciting,” declares King.
Indeed, it’s really the dancers, rather than the dance, that have whipped critics and audiences into an international and universal froth of praise. The 30-member Irish and English troupe is famous for missing nary a step in its intricately choreographed two-hour production. And this is no quiet, lyrical journey that the dancers tap out on the stage: The crescendo roar of their 60 dancing feet has been compared by more than one viewer to a runaway express train. And if that isn’t enough, “Our show is a love story,” reports King.
The “spirit” in the title is an entity, not an abstract, brought to life through prima ballerina Claire Holden. Also wielding star power is the stunning World Irish Dance Champion, Patricia Murray.
Melding ballet and drama with Irish dance in this whirlwind spectacle made its endemic popularity almost a sure thing. “We wanted thousands of people to come see it, rather than half a dozen,” the director says of the creators’ unabashed ambitions for the show. Unlike many dance shows — though very much like one in particular, its popular predecessor Riverdance — Spirit of the Dance is enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds.
“Because of the massive popularity of Riverdance, Spirit of the Dance attracts dance audiences and general, across-the-board audiences, alike,” King points out.
“But Spirit of the Dance is bigger,” he stresses.
Spirit of the Dance has been seen by some as riding the coattails of Riverdance, although the two productions have no formal connection whatsoever. Spirit is produced exclusively by Dublin Worldwide Productions and is loftily described in press kits as starting where the more traditional Riverdance ends. In fact, Spirit of the Dance promoters take an almost testy tone when emphasizing the shows’ differences, noting in the production’s press pack that “Spirit of the Dance is a whole world of dance. … [Unlike Riverdance], all of the dancers take part in all the different dance routines. … This puts them on a higher level than almost any dance troupe in the world.”
But King, in his mild way, is more apt to see Riverdance as a sweet enabler “The shows are best friends,” he says. “Without Riverdance, we wouldn’t be in business.”
Spirit of the Dance is barely three years old and has already been seen by half a million people. King claims that the production evokes standing ovations every single night it plays.